Despotism – the exercise of absolute power, especially in a cruel or oppressive way. – Oxford English Dictionary
Consider a despot; one who practices despotism, who seeks to exercise absolute power over others, especially in a cruel or oppressive way. Despotism is sometimes used as one of the arguments by advocates of the Second Amendment on why the US needs that amendment. The possession by the people of their own arms aids, many have argued, in checking despotism, in preventing tyranny.
Certainly the American Revolution demonstrated a need for the amendment. A people with their own weapons formed the Continental Army, defeated Great Britain, and established the British American colonies’ independence. Thirteen new states arose, each with its own independent militia. The immediate post-revolutionary suspicions against central authority pressured the framers of the Constitution to include an amendment guaranteeing the states’ rights to form militias and to enable their members to bear arms. That amendment was the second of the twelve submitted to be ratified.
The American Revolution was fortunate in that it included leaders like George Washington, who was practically offered a dictatorship by men such as Alexander Hamilton. American political leaders themselves acted (Hamilton, perhaps, notwithstanding) as patriots and refused to build a tyrannical government from the passionate forces sweeping the new nation. Shortly after the American Revolution, the French Revolution exploded, and ran into an entirely different direction. In France, the Revolution crafted a tyranny out of the popular revolts that far surpassed the despotism of the French Crown against which they rebelled, sending tens of thousands to their deaths. Ultimately, the French Revolution also birthed the imperial power of Napoleon Bonaparte. Quickly the French Revolution proved that popular revolution is not, by definition, liberal, empowering, or anti-despotic; the people themselves perpetrated, in the name of the “people in arms,” the gravest despotism that the Age of Reason had seen, and then elevated an imperial dictator.
A century after the end of Napoleon’s rule, armed revolutions tore through Russia, itself an unapologetically despotic regime. Demoralized by war and hunger, the Tsar’s peasant army shouldered arms and went home – many taking their rifles (and more powerful weapons) home with them. The February Revolution saw armed peasants and workers and revolutionary parties talking down the demoralized forces of the Tsar’s remaining forces in the capital, until the revolutionaries had full control of the city. There was virtually no army in February 1917 capable of resisting the revolution; not because of lack of weapons or ammunition, but because of lack of will. The popular forces of the revolution, the “people in arms,” used not bullets or bayonets, but facts and arguments, to defeat the Tsar’s forces and establish the Provisional Government. However, in little time, after the Russian government refused to end the war and to distribute land and food supplies, more extreme forces, the Bolsheviks especially, used their own elite popular fighting forces (select, trained units of factory workers, the Red Guards) to defeat the forces of February. Again, with little initial bloodshed (and the heavier firepower of a cruiser, the Aurora), the Bolsheviks took power in October. Again, the “people in arms” triumphed – and in little more time, sent not just tens of thousands but millions to their deaths.
In Germany, after the end of World War I, popular forces of the Left fought popular forces of the Right. There was little in the way of an effective army, as Germany’s military had been stripped to the bone by the Versailles Treaty. Ultimately, the “people in arms” shot and bullied their way to power in the Reichstag; and President Hindenberg gave Adolf Hitler the Chancellery in the hopes that Hitler would form a coalition government with more centrist forces, defeat the Left, and establish order. Establish order the “people in arms” of the Nazi Sturmabteilung did – a new order, the Third Reich, sending yet even more millions to their deaths.
In Iraq and Syria, following the end of World War II, popular Arab street forces (including forces that would coalesce into the Ba’ath Party) fought each other for power; and from these battles between the various Arab “people in arms” emerged Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, two of the fiercest despots seen in the Middle East. After President George W. Bush’s “mission” was “accomplished,” the defeated Iraqi army disintegrated, and melted into the countryside as soldiers and officers took their weapons with them. They would soon create a putative Islamic State, one of the formative groups later constituting the group referred today as ISIS. These “people in arms”have become proficient in exactly the skills one might expect: they kill, oppress, rape, and destroy. Time after time after time, the free availability of weapons among the people, the “people in arms,” ends with predictable results: despotism, rape, torture, murder, and war.
If this strikes the reader as pessimistic and depressing, the bright side is that despots can be defeated; but it is not best done through force of arms. Mahatma Gandhi took India out of the British Empire through peaceful means of civil disobedience; and Martin Luther King, Jr. used the same tactics to bring civil rights to the US. Across the Soviet bloc, from the late 1980s to 1991, Communist states which controlled weapons possession as strictly as they controlled everything else, saw peaceful revolutions toss Communist governments aside one after another (Romania was the one exception, where the government opened fire on demonstrators, and the army soon joined the revolt against the government and the Securitate). While continued economic problems have begun to eat away at the democratic governments formed through the “Rainbow Revolutions,” the people without arms managed to do in all of these cases what people in arms cannot: change society and government, peacefully, into something better.
With despotism being, itself, a product of over-arming a population, American Second Amendment advocates have a tough sell indeed to prove that weapons possession “checks despotism.” In just the past year, numerous American despots have in fact materialized, armed to the teeth by the Second Amendment. These despots have not been checked by the Second Amendment, or by private armed citizens; they were enabled by the Second Amendment, and they are private armed citizens. Dylann Roof sought absolute powers of life and death over the members of the Emanuel AME church, sought to oppress the African American community with fear and hatred and cruelty. He was not a man in power, but just a radicalized youth manipulated by an unfettered conservative media, and armed with weapons easily acquired in a society eager to enable such acquisitions. But wishing to exercise absolute power, oppressing minorities, Roof definitely qualifies as a despot. Certainly his surviving hate-mates of white supremacism continue to seek a despotic seizure of power. Robert Dear, the shooter at the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs, similarly sought to oppress women and all poor people depending on supports like Planned Parenthood. Another person in arms used these very arms to push, violently and despotically, an extremist agenda on the nation. The San Bernardino shooters also used weapons to attempt, despotically, to change our nation into a more extremist, anti-Muslim regime that would push moderate Muslims into the arms of ISIS. And most recently, Omar Mateen used legally acquired weapons and the tired tactics of despotism and violence to pursue the same mission in Orlando, this time targeting specifically the gay community. None of these despots (and make no mistakes, as separated from legitimate political authority as they were, all of these criminals pursued despotism and were, by definition, despots) were “checked” by the Second Amendment. They were brought down (arrested or killed), after succeeding in generating terror, not by a “good [civilian] guy with a gun,” but by good policemen. All of these despots had their arms enabled by the Second Amendment and by the relaxation of laws on certain types of weapons.
It will, of course, be argued that, lacking access to firearms, American despots could resort to other tactics like the suicide bombers of Palestine, or the bombs of Timothy McVeigh and the Alabama bombings of the 1960s. Indeed, halting easy access to weapons does not eliminate extremist ideas, or the occurrence of extremist actions. But there are reasons why alternate tactics are not used while weapons are plentiful and easily acquired. Such weapons generate the desired results of terror and death, and of personal empowerment for the despot. The simple fact that they are the tools of choice for despotism should itself be the leading argument for limiting access to them.
The Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments of the Constitution secured a diversity of rights for American citizens. But the Second Amendment has secured a right unlike all of the others. With the exception of the Second Amendment, virtually all of the rights protected by the amendments are “participatory” rights, which enable us to contribute to the political environment. Free speech, religion, the press, voting rights, trial rights and protections from the law, protection from slavery, equality of rights, all give Americans access to the political system and enfranchise us with civic responsibilities. Only the Second Amendment produces no “participatory” right, but only a “right of denial,” denying the government a specific power over individuals.
Until 2008, the courts largely did not really consider the Second Amendment as even a “right of denial”; the amendment was not thought to actually guarantee any individual any inherent rights. Instead, the awkwardly ambiguous “militia” clause was historically the dominant clause, determining the court’s view that gun “rights” did not exist in their own outside of states’ rights to form militia forces. All of this changed with District of Columbia v. Heller; and the NRA has been pushing federal and state courts, federal and state legislators, federal and state executives, as well of course as private citizens, to forget 220 years of constitutional and court history, and to forget the militia clause. The NRA continues to push the Heller interpretation of the Second Amendment. They do this, they say, as “the nation’s longest standing civil rights organization,” and “…as America’s foremost defender of Second Amendment rights.”
The NRA’s apparent defense of the Constitution might be laudable, were it not for their overwhelming preference for and financial contributions to Republican legislators (since 2010, NRA support for Democrats has steadily declined to roughly 1% of their total contributions). They prop up a party universally hostile to minorities, to women (the nation’s actual majority), to families and marriage equality, to voting rights, to protection from religious tyranny, to letting courts and juries determine punishments to fit specific instances of crime. All of these participatory rights are fought and limited and chiseled away, one piece at a time, by a party supported unreservedly by the NRA with its pretenses of “defending our civil rights.”
What is the solution to the problem of violence and despotism in America, to the protections afforded to despots by the Second Amendment? The Second Amendment is, indeed, not going away in the foreseeable future. There are over 300 million privately held firearms in the US. Like our nation’s wealth, these weapons are steadily concentrating into fewer hands, each with greater arsenals, but as of 2015, 31% of households in the US had at least one firearm. Private gun-owners in the US fall almost evenly onto both sides of the partisan divide. An actual repeal of the Second Amendment is itself not a realistic option for the immediate future; far too many Americans are simply opposed to such a repeal, and that opposition is firmly bipartisan. Nonetheless, an additional amendment clarifying the language of the Second Amendment could potentially reattach the gun right to the militia clause, as it was in the past, so that as with all of our participatory rights, gun rights could be limited where they conflict with the public safety.
Ultimately, to some extent, we Americans are going to have to get more comfortable with the need for public safety to override certain gun rights, pure and simple. We have constricted the rights to free speech, to the press, to religion, to all other rights whenever such rights become dangerous to other people or to society as a whole. Gun rights are no different, except that the danger is not theoretical as in the case of “yelling ‘fire’ in a movie theater” for free speech. The danger of firearms is far too real, and can be easily quantified by caliber, impact velocity, and rounds per minute. This nation has before exercised a ban on weapons like the modified military rifles preferred today by despots. It is ludicrous to suggest that such a ban would not work today, as it has worked before, and in fact quite recently. The nation can implement a “self-disarmament” law that does not punish gun-owners for clinging to their guns, but does reward those who turn their guns in to the police for destruction. Stricter gun controls do not have to require the government to “come for our guns,” but they can still reduce the possession of lethal technologies by people not professionally trained or authorized by the public for their use. Such a “buy back” measure helped to reduce murder rates, actual firearms crimes, and absolute crime incidents in Australia by substantial numbers, even while the population increased from 18 million to 23 million.
Publicly, we the people need even more to disarm the NRA, an actual threat to our safety rather than the individual hunter or the rape victim seeking to protect herself with a self-defense piece. Without enhancing our governments’ own potentials for despotism, we the people need to take our governments back from special interests that interfere with our liberty and our safety. The NRA does not represent in good faith even its own members (for example, in fighting against increased background checks which 74% of NRA members support), or gun-owners (with almost half of them being Democrats whose other rights the NRA fights by supporting Republican legislators), let alone the American public. We need to hold our legislators’ feet to the fire for taking NRA contributions and for supporting an anti-safety agenda.
Finally, we can use the methods that have always worked to check despotism: the political process, voting, and civic action. We the People must push our local, state, and federal governments to restrict weapons possession by suspicious persons, restrict arsenal sizes, restrict types of weapons shown to be preferred tools of despotism, and even to deny outright such rights to certain persons (people on no-fly lists, people with histories of hate-crime arrests, people affiliated with known hate groups, etc.). The American public has to accept that the Second Amendment has been twisted far past the original intent and conditions of the framers. The Second Amendment is enabling despotism, not checking it; and to combat against the growing threat of despotism, we need first and foremost to disarm that threat.
Headline image from “Podcast: A Reasoned Debate About the Second Amendment” (National Constitution Center, October 22, 2015).